Raising a Teen to Be Open-Minded

Thanks to technology, our world is so much more interconnected than ever before. As a result, our children will be exposed to a wide variety of people with many differences, including race, language, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, disabilities, age, economic circumstances, customs, culture, and lifestyles. It’s important that we teach youth to behave and make decisions based on respect and tolerance and avoid bias and prejudice. As parents, we send dozens of subtle messages to children not only by what we discuss and teach, but even by what we do NOT discuss or teach. Research shows that understanding and appreciating differences promotes an individual’s cognitive development, mature decision-making, and positive behavior.

Here are tips to teach your child to be an open-minded person:

Role model. Children, especially teens, are very observant and are much more likely to emulate what they see than what they hear. When adults show respect for others, teens will consider that type of behavior an important value. Show curiosity when you encounter diverse people or ideas. Demonstrate polite behavior, such as not interrupting or judging others. Avoid stereotypical remarks or openly criticizing or embarrassing others. If you use harsh words to put others down, your child will think this is an acceptable way to behave. Point out whenever you see anyone showing consideration for others, kindness, or helpfulness, and certainly praise your teen if you see them display these types of behaviors.

Celebrate diversity. As a family, try to attend different festivals, religious activities, and cultural practices to expose your children to different races and cultures. Encourage your teen to read books written by authors from different backgrounds. Visit diverse restaurants to try foods from many cultures. Travel to other parts of the world to experience unique environments and lifestyles, or if you don’t have the money to travel abroad, watch documentaries about other countries. Point out unique things from other cultures you find interesting or fun. This will help your children understand that our different backgrounds are sources of inspiration, not something to be feared.

Call out prejudice. Sadly, there is a lot of prejudice in the world, so call it out when you see it to help your children recognize what bigotry looks like. For example, TV shows and movies are full of racial stereotypes, so be sure to note that not all Muslims are terrorists, not all Asians are nerdy workaholics, not all Mexicans are illegal immigrants, and not all Russians are cold-hearted villains. Every group of people has encountered negative stereotypes, and it’s important to talk with your teen about how these labels and assumptions affect others. Use news and other media reports to discuss discrimination of gender, age, sexuality, and disabilities. Your teen will be exposed to trending topics on social media that could be filled with bias, so bring up the topic at the dinner table. Provide accurate information to reject harmful myths and stereotypes. 

Encourage diverse friendships. One of the best ways to improve acceptance is simply exposure to those who are different. We naturally feel connected and understood when we find someone else who looks like us, thinks like we do, does things the way we do, or has experienced something similar to our experiences. While this is normal, your teen should not just surround themselves with similar people. It limits our perspective and often leads to thinking that our way is the “only” or “right” way to do things. Urge your teen to befriend peers from all types of backgrounds. Getting to know people different from oneself leads to reduced prejudice and increased understanding. Consider asking friends from different backgrounds to share their traditions and customs with your family. Explain to your teen that everyone is different and this is what makes life more interesting.

Teach active listening. You have to be able to listen to others before you can understand a different point of view. Listening to someone else’s concerns, desires, hopes, fears and struggles will remind you that there is more to life than what you see from your own perspective. Teach teens the process of active listening with the following suggestions. When someone is speaking to you, you should be spending your energy trying to understand their viewpoint or feelings, not trying to think about what you will say back to them. Ask questions to clarify what the speaker is saying. Don’t interrupt, judge or jump to conclusions. Listening closely to someone and working to understand their viewpoint does NOT mean that you have to agree or disagree with them. You can make someone feel heard and understood without believing they are correct or offering your own opinion.

Challenge the idea of “normal.” Generally, people are treated differently because they’re seen as abnormal. All of us are born unique with different likes and preferences, so there is no one way to be “normal.” When your teen sees someone who seems “weird” to them, try to acknowledge both differences and similarities in that person. Studies show that ignoring differences can actually make discrimination worse, so it’s a good idea to point out both what is different and what we have in common with other people.

Final Thoughts…

Our differences – whether based on ability, race, gender, mental health, sexual orientation, age, religion, culture, socioeconomics, or origin – improve our world. Accepting people of various backgrounds with different life experiences actually generates more creativity, reduces bullying, creates new ideas and perspectives, supports social growth, and increases productivity. We should all be striving to create a more compassionate culture for the next generation, so let’s encourage our teens to find ways to accept differences.

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